In everyone’s rush to judgment regarding the latest New York Times revelations about the previously undisclosed meeting between a Russian lawyer and Trump campaign people (Donald, Jr., Kushner and Manafort), it is necessary to look at the timeline of events surrounding that meeting. It is also important to keep in perspective what we know and, equally important, what we do not know. This is an unfolding story.
To some, this is the smoking gun that proves if not a conspiracy or collusion, then certainly coordination between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives in their attempt to influence the outcome of the election. Since we are talking about the Trump campaign, it is not necessary to go into detail about counter-charges of alleged influence by other non-Russian actors in talking to or possibly aiding the Clinton campaign. Politico did an excellent write-up detailing Ukrainian influence and help, but it did not rise to the level of anything Russia did.
Around April 26, 2016, Trump declared himself the presumptive GOP nominee after primary wins in Pennsylvania and other states. Hillary Clinton was the presumptive Democratic nominee by this time also. Hence, the Trump campaign shifted from winning the nomination to winning the general election against Hillary Clinton. It would seem logical that the Trump campaign would then attempt to find opposition research on her on a more aggressive basis.
On April 29th, the DNC learned that their computer system had been hacked. Nobody knew by who, but they retained the services of CrowdStrike to determine such. By May 1st, CrowdStrike had determined that hackers with “Russian digital fingerprints” were the responsible culprits. It should also be mentioned that the FBI and various agencies had warned the DNC of security risks in August, 2015 but the DNC rebuffed their efforts on many occasions. Most stories state that the DNC was hacked in June. That is false!
CrowdStrike had determined as early as May 1, 2016 that Russian-affiliated hackers had penetrated the DNC. They went by the names Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear. Fancy Bear has a known affiliation with Russia’s Main Intelligence Department, or GRU- the successor to the KGB. The GRU does not act without Putin’s approval so this was no rogue operation.
Enter the shady GPS Fusion connection. In September 2015, a rich Republican with a strong distaste for Trump approached and funded opposition research on Trump with the purpose of derailing his primary chances. After Trump secured the presumptive nomination in late April, that donor dropped out, but new ones stepped in- Clinton supporters. Thus, the research project continued unabated.
GPS Fusion admits they hired Richard Steele, a former MI6 agent, to conduct the research given his contacts in Russia. He farmed out some of the research to these contacts and a lot of it ended up in the infamously salacious “Steele Dossier.” The shift from a wealthy Republican to Clinton supporters funding this project occurred in either late April or early May.
At this point, even though they notified the FBI, the DNC did not allow the FBI to examine their servers. Instead, they forwarded the results of the CrowdStrike findings to the FBI upon which that agency determined that Russia was behind the hacking.
It is in this atmosphere that the meeting with a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, enters the picture. According to most accounts, the meeting was brokered by an associate of Donald Trump, Jr.- Rob Goldstone. At this point, Trump, Jr. does not know the name nor the nationality of Veselnitskaya. The alleged smoking gun is an e-mail from Goldstone to Trump, Jr. “indicating” that this person (the lawyer) had information regarding Clinton, possibly campaign finance irregularities.
What is most troubling about this e-mail is that it supposedly also “indicates” that the source of the information on Clinton came from the Russian government. If any of this is true, then we may be getting into splitting legal hairs, but the bottom line is that it is not good for Trump, Jr. specifically or the claims by the Trump campaign/administration of no cooperation with Russia.
It should be noted that the New York Times articles state that no one has seen this e-mail and they are relying on three sources ‘familiar” with it. These three sources use the word “indicates” with reference to the Russian government involvement. Since we are dealing with “indications” or, more accurately, “perceptions,” it is important that we put some smoke back into the gun until the actual e-mail is produced.
The meeting then took place in Trump Tower on June 9th. Prior to this meeting, Trump tweets that there was potentially damaging information coming out on Clinton. My personal take: Donald, Jr. gets this e-mail and tells his father. Trump, Sr. then makes his Tweet. Donald, Jr. then has the meeting and determines that there is nothing to the claims in the e-mail. According to some reports, Manafort and Kushner leave the meeting after ten minutes.
Considering that Manafort was in the process of becoming campaign manager and Kushner tasked with control of all Trump campaign data-driven efforts, it becomes obvious that the reason they are at this meeting is to hear what dirt Veselnitskaya has on Clinton, realizes it is nothing, and they leave Trump, Jr. to discuss adopted kids or whatever.
Then on June 14th- 45 days after discovering they had been hacked by Russians, according to CrowdStrike- the DNC announces the hacking effort. This is where the confusion of “the DNC was hacked in June” narrative enters the discussion. It didn’t occur in June; it occurred prior to April 26th.
Is it possible Veselnitskaya knew of the Russian hacking activity? Is it possible she was aware of it, but not specifics? If so, then the June 9th, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower is, at the very least, highly suspicious. That is, if anyone in the Trump campaign was aware that Russia was behind the hacking of the DNC with the purpose to damage the campaign of Clinton and/or bolster that of Trump yet continued to have contacts with high-ranking Russian operatives for whatever reason, that could potentially make them complicit in a crime.
The problem is that the day after the DNC announcement, a shadowy online figure claiming to be Romanian, Guccifer 2.0, took responsibility for the hacks and noted that they were not Russian. However, analysis of Guccifer 2.0 threads indicate that their Romanian is grammatically incorrect and that they regularly used a Russian-language virtual private network (VPN). They started posting hacked DNC e-mails on their website. Not being an expert in VPNs and all that, but every indication is that Guccifer 2.0 is Russian. Whether they are an agent of the Russian government makes no difference since it would not be out of Putin’s bag of tricks to use digital cut-outs.
The day after Comey’s news conference announcing that he was not bringing charges against Clinton for improprieties regarding her personal e-mail server, Guccifer 2.0 released a second batch of hacked e-mails and documents from the DNC. The timing of these document/e-mail dumps clearly coincides with actions favorable to Trump or unfavorable to Clinton/the DNC. Thus, I believe that we can make a logical conclusion that whoever Guccifer 2.0 is, they either liked Trump or hated Clinton.
Then on the eve of the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, WikiLeaks releases hacked documents somewhat damaging to Clinton in that they revealed a concerted effort to derail the candidacy of Bernie Sanders despite the fact the DNC was posturing itself as a neutral entity in the Democratic nomination process.
It does not help Trump’s case that he was basically parroting these revelations prior to their release. On many occasions, he was lamenting the fact in interviews, on Twitter and in campaign speeches that Bernie Sanders was being railroaded by Clinton and the DNC, or that the American media was in bed with the Clinton campaign. There are indications of this in the hacked e-mails and documents from the DNC and Clinton campaign honcho John Podesta. However, this is not in and of itself evidence that Trump or anyone in his campaign had access to this information prior to their release by either Guccifer 2.0 or WikiLeaks. In fact, many within the Sanders camp had been making these accusations as early as February, 2016. It could be that Trump picked up on these accusations which were then later confirmed by the hacked e-mails and documents.
As for the meeting at Trump Tower, there is still much to be discovered. Seeing the actual e-mail from Goldstone to Trump, Jr. would certainly help clear up some things rather than relying on the second-hand “indications” of three people “familiar with” the e-mail. The Times article does note that there is no evidence that the alleged information that Veselnitskaya had was illegally obtained, or that he was offered the contents of hacked e-mails at this meeting. If either of those are proven, then Trump, Jr. is in significant legal trouble.
It should also be noted at this point that according to some election law experts, other than the context of campaign finance, no one is under a legal obligation to report unsolicited help in obtaining opposition research. We know that several members of the Trump campaign- Carter Page, Jeff Sessions, Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, etc.- met with Russians during the campaign and after. We also know that the DNC and Clinton campaign used the help of the Ukraine government. States Politico in a January 11, 2017 article:
Donald Trump wasn’t the only presidential candidate whose campaign was boosted by officials of a former Soviet bloc country.
Ukrainian government officials tried to help Hillary Clinton and undermine Trump by publicly questioning his fitness for office. They also disseminated documents implicating a top Trump aide in corruption and suggested they were investigating the matter, only to back away after the election. And they helped Clinton’s allies research damaging information on Trump and his advisers, a Politico investigation found.
A Ukrainian-American operative who was consulting for the Democratic National Committee met with top officials in the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington in an effort to expose ties between Trump, top campaign aide Paul Manafort and Russia, according to people with direct knowledge of the situation.
The Ukrainian efforts had an impact in the race, helping to force Manafort’s resignation and advancing the narrative that Trump’s campaign was deeply connected to Ukraine’s foe to the east, Russia.
That article also notes that the Ukrainian effort was not as centrally-controlled as was the Russian effort on the other side. Of course, nothing of this nature excuses the Trump campaign if the accusations are correct. Clinton lost; Trump didn’t.
Perhaps David Axelrod of all people had the most sober analysis of this when he said the Trump campaign was like no other in recent electoral history. He is the first to admit that the jury is out on this most recent affair (the Trump Tower meeting). He believes anything improper was likely motivated by a “win at any cost” campaign being run by amateurs possibly unaware at the time of what Russia was up to. In his words:
“But again, I don’t think that they — that even crossed the radar screen over there (the Trump campaign). So I — you know, I have real doubts — about whether they thought that there was something, you know, illegal, wrong, unethical about it.”
Perhaps, help was offered because of Trump’s favorable tweets towards Russia. He further stated that campaigns are sometimes contacted by people from this country and others offering opposition research and the like. Sometimes they are reported, and in this case should have been. Certainly, the Clinton campaign, run by more seasoned professionals, did not report the coordination with Ukrainians.
If nothing else, this shines a light on the depth of attempted foreign influence in our elections. It would be ludicrous to believe this has not happened in the past- not the hacking- but attempts by foreign governments to help their preferred candidate or damage their not-preferred candidate. Ted Kennedy and the KGB come readily to mind as the grossest example until 2016, with Chinese money flowing into Bill Clinton’s campaign a close second.
This writer remains convinced that Russian interference or meddling was more geared to Putin’s domestic audience back in Russia. To the extent it played out here, he had a vendetta against Clinton and this was an opportunity to bloody her nose. Trump was possibly the unwitting beneficiary. Was there a conspiracy or collusion? While most of the evidence cited above would create a decent prima facie case for coordination, it is all circumstantial at this point. I’ve seen too many smoking guns in too short a time to be lost in the haze. It would not be out of the realm of possibilities to believe that Trump and his cronies are not covering up collusion with the Russian government; they are covering up stupidity and, at the very least, unethical behavior or at worst, something illegal the likes of which this country has not seen in quite some time.